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In Review > North America

Pagliacci

DETROIT
Michigan Opera Theatre
5/16/12

Can Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci stand alone? That was the question posed by Michigan Opera Theatre's production of the famous but brief two-act opera, which closed out the company's forty-first season at the Detroit Opera House in May. Traditionally, Pagliacci is paired with another equally brief opera (such as Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana or Puccini's Gianni Schicchi) to offer patrons a full-evening-length opera experience. Eschewing that tradition, MOT gave its audience Pagliacci solo — with a twist.

Stage director Bernard Uzan interpolated a brief dream-ballet sequence at the beginning of Act II that was meant to fill in background material on the tragic Nedda's introduction to the traveling acting company (and to Canio's life). Accompanied by music arranged by Philip A. Kelsey from the score of Leoncavallo's 1900 opera Zaza, the dancers briefly fleshed out the story. Uzan's clever idea worked very well, adding a gentle substance that made the act that followed even more tragic.

The stand-alone approach also revealed with more intensity the extent of Leoncavallo's genius. Pagliacci is at the very least a miniature masterpiece, and MOT's performers affirmed that claim in just about every way.

Italian tenor Antonello Palombi sang Canio's music with great gusto, wrapping his huge voice around Leoncavallo's notes with reverberating success. His "Vesti la giubba" was intense, yet not without its lyrical moments. American soprano Jill Gardner negotiated Nedda's music successfully, sailing through her "Stridono lassù" with airy grace, although the decision to have a young dancer suddenly surface as her dancing partner and then just as suddenly zip offstage at the aria's conclusion was a clumsy device. Gardner also offered just the right kind of cocky arrogance in the play-within-a-play portion of Act II, matched beautifully by Palombi's increasing frustration with her actions.

American baritone Gordon Hawkins has been making quite a name for himself as Alberich in Wagner's Ring in San Francisco, Berlin and Seville. I found his rendition of Tonio's Prologue a bit tame, but he warmed up as the performance progressed, using his pliant voice to very good effect in the mounting tragedy of Act II.

Mexican baritone Luis Ledesma sang with the proper amount of increasing frustration as Silvio; American tenor Philippe Pierce, working under an announced respiratory illness, sang his way through Beppe's music with excellent, healthy-sounding results.

This is the seventeenth production for which American-born Steven Mercurio has mounted MOT's podium. Although there were several points on opening night where he and the singers did not seem to see eye-to-eye, Mercurio's overall conception of Leoncavallo's score was on target. The MOT Chorus sang with gusto.

Claude Girard's set (originally created for L'Opera de Montreal) and Cynthia Savage's costumes (executed by Seattle Opera) were handsome, as was the attractive 1956 Citroen Traction Avant that drove onstage in Act I, courtesy of Eugene Silverman. spacer

JOHN GUINN

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